Saturday, January 16, 2010

Getting to know ourself

   Yes, I wrote ourself: the grammatical error is deliberate.  Tomorrow two facilitators will visit Schuylkill Friends and at rise of meeting will explain the purpose of the survey  members and attenders will complete as part of the "Knowing Ourself as a Meeting" process, developed by the Center for Deepening and Strengthening Our Meetings, a ministry of PYM. The use of the singular --ourself-- emphasizes that our meeting is a community with a collective personality. The results of the survey will help us become better acquainted with ourself so that, as a family, we can become stronger and more faithful to the Word.

  I won't hide the fact that I've been a bit discouraged of late. Usually there is a swell of attendance at our meeting in the fall after individuals and families return from vacation, travel, etc.  This year there was not. Our once lively children's and young people's program has dwindled to just a couple of toddlers and a few very committed teens -- making a First Day class challenging to conduct to say the least! Our meeting has fallen into the pattern of a handful of persons who all serve on multiple committees but are unable realistically to do sustained work on each one. One day the thought even occurred to me that the total number of active adults at our meeting would pretty much count as a "small group" at typical main line church.

   It's easy to become discouraged. But then I think about Jesus' teachings and parables. Faithfulness is never about big numbers. As a matter of fact, he seemed to expect that it would all start with just a few who, hearts on fire, would sow the Word among the many. But after two thousand years............? Well, maybe yes, maybe each generation starts over, hearing and sowing the Word in its own way.

   Seriously, how can one expect multitudes to flock to a small meetinghouse, unadorned inside or out, where there's no choir, no sermon, no elements to be blessed and distributed, where no priest intones a blessing, and where --as the saying goes-- the service begins only when meeting for worship ends? There are many reasons why Quakers deserve to be qualified as "peculiar," but I'd like to think that it is because we strive to understand and embrace that of God in everyone rather than succumbing to fear of the Other; because we carefully nurture divine inner peace so that a bit of it might spill over into world around us, and because when we join together it's not to partake of a ritual for the salvation of our souls in the hereafter, but to listen expectantly so the small, still voice in our hearts will instruct us how better to love other souls in the here-and-now.
   Sometimes, though, I do feel that we're just a tiny grain of that salt of the earth that Jesus spoke about, just a barely perceptible spark of the light of the world, just a molecule of the leaven that the woman kneaded into her dough.

   Please hold our meeting in the Light.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Riding the rails with Primo Levi

Been car sharing several days per week with my son, who works part-time at a local Così restaurant. On Monday he will start taking courses at the local community college as well, so I'll definitely be taking the train to work Monday through Thursday. Maybe Friday too, if his work schedule requires. He cannot get to college or to work except by car, while the train leaves me right on the campus where I work. So I only need to be dropped off at the station closest to home.

  During the Thanksgiving break, I watched movie La Tregua (The Truce), based on the book of the same title by Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi. While John Turturro turned in a moving performance as the newly liberated narrator, he sure looked a whole older than the 25-year-old Buna camp survivor. The film piqued my curiosity and I located a copy of Levi's autobiographical novel describing his circuitous journey home, much of it on and off trains. I feel as though he has been keeping me company on my train ride to and from work. 

If being able to pick up and read a book in your native language anytime, anywhere is like sampling your grandma's home cooking whenever you want, then the ability to read another language is like having at your fingertips tasty tidbits of another culture’s cuisine. And just as dishes can be sweet, savory, piquant, or even pungent in flavor, so it is with works of literature. La Tregua constantly regales the reader with such passages, suprisingly humorous at times, but more often bitter or bittersweet and always imbued with the powerful insights of the moving that I just have to share them, translating myself as best as I can. Hope you enjoy them, gentle reader.

By the way, the Italian text is available in its entirety at

The English translation is available in several editions, often published with Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), Levi's first autobiographical novel relating his experiences as a prisoner. Here's a fairly recent edition.

First, a little information about Primo Levi, in case you're not familiar with him.  Levi was born into an Italian Jewish family in 1919 and enrolled in the doctoral program in chemistry at the University of Turin in 1937. Levi managed to defended his thesis and receive his degree in chemistry with honors in spite of the fascist regime's racial laws that abrogated the civil and human rights of Jews, including the right to study at the university. He went to live in Milan and worked for a branch of a Swiss pharmaceutical company. There Levi came into contact with resistance fighters, members of the clandestine Partito d'Azione, and became a partigiano. Untrained and poorly armed, he and his ragtag band were arrested  by the Germans near Saint-Vincent (Val d'Aosta).  As prisoner #174 517, Levi was sent to Buna-Monowitz (known then as Auschwitz III).

Out of a total of 650 prisoners, Levi was one of only twenty who survived Buna, and he attributed his survival to a series of fortunate coincidences. More on that in a later blog post. 

   As the book opens, the prisoners of Buna see four Red Army soldiers come riding toward the camp on horseback:

   ...four men bearing arms, but not against us; four messengers of peace... They did not wave at us or smile. They seemed strangely inhibited; an emotion  stronger than pity, some sort of awkward reserve was keeping their mouths sealed while their eyes stayed glued to the dreadful scene before them. It was that same sense of shame that we had come to know so well, the shame that would overwhelm us after the selections and whenever we were forced to witness or submit to an outrage. A shame that the Germans never knew but that the just man feels when another commits a crime. And it torments him that such crime exists and has been irrevocably introduced into the world of things that exist, and that the will to do good has been rendered either null or unsubstantial, totally useless as a means of defense.

...quattro uomini armati, ma non armati contro di noi; quattro messaggeri di pace...Non salutavano, non sorridevano; apparivano oppressi, oltre che da pietà, da un confuso ritegno, che sigillava le loro bocche, e avvinceva i loro occhi allo scenario funereo. Era la stessa vergogna a noi ben nota, quella che sommergeva dopo le selezioni, ed ogni volta che ci toccava assistere o sottostare a un oltraggio: la vergogna che i tedeschi non conobbero, quella che il giusto prova davanti alla colpa commessa da altrui, e gli rimorde che esista, che sia stata introdotta irrevocabilmente nel mondo delle cose che esistono, e che la sua volontà buona sia stata nulla o scarsa, e non abbia valso a difesa.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Time it was...

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you 
Simon and Garfunkel, Bookends

  Ordinarily I'm not one to attribute psychological or other arcane symbolism to something as simple as a cold. I'm not one to believe that a physical illness is a sign of some spiritual or psychic malaise...ordinarily. 

  With 10 days of Christmas break ahead of me, I had the bright idea of finally putting the rest of the family photos into albums, finally getting rid of those boxes lying about on the living room carpet. So about a week about --4 days into my break-- I surveyed the situation, looking at the photos and seeing where I had left off organizing them.  I knew it had been quite awhile.  Now I had a date.  I had stopped in 1997, a dozen years ago. And I looked at picture after picture.  My sons were still very young, 10 and 8 years old respectively. Tony's pictures were only vague suggestions of that impetuous, foolhardy, Energizer Bunny who nearly drove us crazy at times.  And Joe, who always seemed more mature than his years. A dozen years, and pictures are all that's left...

I kept trying to remember what, if anything, was special about's been haunting me like a Zen koan. I've been leading a sort of double life this past week or so, on the outside visiting, talking to people, exchanging Christmas wishes, while on the inside invisibly digging deeper and deeper trying to unearth the meaning encased in those years separating 1997 from today. Finally, on New Year's Day I came down with a miserable cold.

Today I'm finally feeling a bit better and --coincidentally--have gained some insight into the meaning of the koan...

In 1997 I increased my work hours to 20 per week, beginning the transition from full-time child-rearing to the "working world." Also, my mom's Alzheimer's had progressed to the point where I had to place her into a specialized assisted living facility. I can still remember how guilty I felt as I closed the electronically secured door on her. She was physically strong but her mind was totally gone. She had become a wander risk and had indeed locked herself out of the house numerous times or been found by neighbors sweeping the sidewalk at midnight. I was able to bring her home on holidays, and there are a lot of photos of mom sitting next to the kids or my in-laws or next to the cousin and aunt and companion who stayed faithful to her till the end. But when I look at those pictures I say to myself, "Mom had Alzheimer's then" and I remember that she had become more of a child than my children. They were progressing, the boys, while mom was regressing.  

  Indeed, it does all seem like just a hop, skip and a jump from then till now. The boys progressed to greater self-sufficiency, as happens inexorably with healthy kids. One will graduate from college in June, while the other tours with his band when he's not working or taking courses.  I began to work on a master's in French in 1999 and completed it in 2003.  Mom became more and more debilitated, finally passing away in 2002. And I officially joined the Religious Society of Friends in 2006. So for me, 1997 not Y2K was the big turning point. But so much for milestones. That's now what my cold is about.  It's about digging down and unearthing years that I had purposely tried to leave behind. And --because God is good-- I have not come up empty.